The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson


  I half-expected her to tell me. Sometimes—it is astonishing—a quiet girl who regards the corner of your desk will, without more than the faintest encouragement, bring herself readily to recount the most amazing fantasies, but she only dropped her eyes to examine the foot of the ashstand and said “Nothing.”

  “Probably,” I agreed. “Probably nothing at all. But Doctor Ryan seemed to feel that you and I should have a little talk, and perhaps—”

  “It’s just wasting your time,” she said.

  “I suppose so.” I dislike being interrupted, but Miss R. seemed so sure that she was well that I was curious; I confess I almost thought at that moment never to see her again. “Doctor Ryan says,” I told her, consulting Ryan’s note, “that you have difficulty sleeping.”

  “I don’t,” she said. “I sleep all right. My aunt told him I didn’t sleep but I do.”

  “I see.” I made a meaningless note, and said cautiously, “And the headaches?”

  “Well,” she said, moving her hands together slightly. I waited, thinking that she was going to continue, and then looked up expectantly. She was gazing raptly at my desk calendar, as though she had never seen such a thing before.

  “And the headaches?” I repeated, a little sharp.

  She looked at me squarely for the first time, dull, uninterested, stupid, turning her hands one within the other. “And the headaches?” I said. As though I had reminded her, she put one hand to the back of her neck, and closed her eyes; “And the headaches?” I said, and she looked at me, her eyes wide and aware of me, and said loudly, “I’m frightened.”

  “Frightened, Miss R.?”

  “I haven’t any headache,” she said. “I feel fine.”

  “But frightened,” I said. I noticed that I had begun to fidget with my letter opener, and put it down firmly on the desk and set my hands evenly one beside the other.

  Miss R. folded her own hands neatly in her lap and smiled dully at the corner of the curtain.

  “Well, now, Miss R.,” I said, wondering at myself for an intense desire to turn and look at the curtain with her, “suppose we . . .”

  “Thank you very much, Doctor Wright,” she said, rising. “I am sure you have done me a great deal of good. Am I to come again?”

  “Please do,” I said, scrambling out from behind the desk as she started for the door. “Perhaps Miss Hartley can give you an appointment for the day after tomorrow.”

  “Goodbye,” she said. I sat down again as the door closed behind her, and had my look at the curtain, and reflected that if Miss R. could be brought to tell me anything at all of her ailments, it would not be willingly or even—I perceived even then—consciously.

  That, then, was my first introduction to Miss R. (and before my reader gasps, and stops, and turns jeering to point at a grammatical error in the good doctor’s notes, let me interject with dignity that I use the tautology “first introduction” deliberately, almost in the nature of a joke; I had, as my reader, abashed, will soon see, more than one introduction to this remarkable girl). My own opinion then, I will say honestly, was of a personality disturbed and beset with problems it was incapable of solving alone; I am not a maker of quick judgments and could not, even then, damn Miss R. with a pat name for her illness.

  My own special hobbyhorse has long been hypnosis; the great and enduring good brought about by hypnotic treatments, its value in a case such as Miss R.’s, its soothing and consoling effect on the patient, have persuaded me after much practice and definite estimate of results that the skillful and sympathetic use of hypnosis is of inestimable value to the medical man whose patients justly fear placing themselves in the hands of your modern name-callers; I had determined already that hypnosis was the best—indeed, as I saw it, the only—method to induce Miss R. to reveal enough of her difficulties to aid us toward alleviating them, and hypnosis I determined to try.

  On her second visit to my office, we again scrutinized the curtains, the ashstand, the calendar, and I spared a moment to wonder what poor old Ryan had made of her; I hesitated to return directly to her statement that she was frightened, and so began by covering the same ground as before; again she insisted that she slept perfectly well, that she had no headaches, and, going by her words alone, it would seem that a visit to a doctor was, to her way of thinking, an absurd and unreasonable imposition; when she looked at me directly, however, there was in her eyes the mute appeal of an animal (and I am an animal lover; I do not degrade Miss R. by the comparison; indeed, I have seen many dogs more intelligent and aware than Miss R. seemed then, on our second meeting) hurt beyond its understanding and longing for help.

  “Are you afraid of me?” I asked her gently, at last.

  She shook her head no.

  “Are you afraid of Doctor Ryan?”

  Again no.

  “Of speaking to me of your illness?”

  And she nodded her head yes. She regarded still the edge of the carpet, but I was persuaded that her answers related to my questions, and continued, heartened, “Do you have difficulty speaking?”

  Yes again.

  “Then will you permit me to hypnotize you?”

  Staring at me then, eyes wide, she first shook her head violently no, and afterward, as one less frightened of the cure than its practitioner, nodded her head yes.

  That, then, was Miss R.’s second priceless interview with Doctor Wright. I felt, however, that I had made progress; I could hardly boast that I had won my patient’s confidence, but I had, at least—and I defy Ryan to say the same—had from her an answer to a question.

  When she left I remarked casually that we would, then, attempt an hypnotic trance upon her next visit and so I was—from bitter and long-suffering experience—not more than mildly surprised when she entered my office upon the occasion of her next appointment with a step slower than usual and a look so furtive that she dared not face the curtain squarely, but regarded instead the toe of her shoe. She spoke at once, from the doorway, before I had even time to tell her good afternoon; “Doctor Wright,” she said, “I have to go. I can’t stay.”

  “And why not, Miss R.?”

  “Because,” she said.

  “Because, Miss R.?”

  “I have an appointment,” she said.

  “With me, surely.”

  “No, with someone else. I have to go back to work,” she added, inspired.

  Our appointments, for alternate days, were always at four-thirty, since Miss R. left her employment at four; it was remotely possible that Miss R. might today be required to return to her office, but I said in a leisurely fashion, “Well, Miss R., and is this all true?”

  She was unused to falsehood, and had the grace to blush. “No,” she said. She shifted her pocketbook to her other hand and said, “The truth is that my aunt is opposed to hypnotism.”

  “Indeed?” I said. “I am astonished that it was not mentioned. Surely Doctor Ryan—”

  “I agree with my aunt,” said Miss R. “I oppose hypnotism.”

  I might perhaps have accepted this as a moderately reasonable attitude (considering, heaven help us, the fakeries and lies practiced upon the general public in the name of hypnosis, I am only surprised, sometimes, that the uninformed people of this world continue to respect medical men at all), even considering Miss R.’s extremely limited area of experience, and the unlikelihood of her having formed any very decided opinions about anything whatsoever, had I not observed, glancing at her at that moment, that her eyes were imploring me, almost as though, speaking, she wanted one thing and looking, another.

  “Nevertheless,” I said firmly, “I intend to continue with the treatment as we agreed at your last visit.”

  “How?” she asked, surprised. “If I don’t want you to?”

  The look of entreaty which accompanied these words caused me to continue, as firmly, “It would be foolish to suppose that
I could or would treat you against your will, nor would I wish to do so, but surely you cannot find any objection to continuing our conversation of your last visit? I found it most enjoyable.”

  Warily, as though afraid that I might perhaps leap at her and force upon her my horrendous treatments, she moved toward her usual chair, and I found myself experiencing a strong relief when she was at last induced to sit quietly, and fix her gaze, as always, upon some unoffending object.

  How to begin was not a problem; Miss R. having once been brought to consent to treatment, needed no further persuasion, I knew; what Miss R. needed was some method, palatably presented, whereby what she actually wanted (and of this I was positive by now, that she did want treatment, and by the means I suggested) could be offered her in disguise, as it were, so that her objections, however unreasonable, might be circumvented with her own unconscious aid. At any rate, with Miss R., whose mental resources were, to say the least, untapped, nothing so patently on the surface as her rejection of treatment needed to be dealt with by any more than the most perfunctory deviousness; I smiled amiably down at my desk and remarked that at least I might have the pleasure of conversing with her; she looked at me swiftly and away, perceiving the heavy emphasis I used and seeing what I meant her to see, that I was both vexed and disappointed.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, and such a voluntary statement from Miss R. was worth almost any effort to me, in the step ahead it represented. “I wish I could let you hypnotize me.”

  I bowed politely, as befits a gentleman whose generous offers have been civilly rejected (Victor Wright, Marquis of Steyne!) and I repressed my smile as I said smoothly, “Perhaps at another time; when we know one another better you will trust me.”

  “I trust you,” Miss R. said uncertainly to the floor.

  I endeavored to turn the conversation onto Miss R.’s family and her work, since discussion of her physical condition had found her so reticent, but discovered, as I had more than half expected, that Miss R. was ready with no more comprehensive descriptions of her family life or the museum where she was employed; indeed, at one point, despairing, I was almost persuaded that the girl was largely unaware of place and time, and might, if asked suddenly, have difficulty remembering her own name! I learned—through a cross-examination of which the Spanish Inquisitors might have been proud—that she was at this time doing a kind of menial clerical work at the museum, typing (the kind of a formal learned activity, requiring no imagination or inventive qualities in discovering the correct letters, which Miss R. might be expected to do splendidly) and dealing with routine correspondence (again, I ascertained, requiring no initiative) and matter-of-fact listings which required only the ability to copy down names and numbers.

  It was this work which had suffered so extremely from her ill health, since she depended upon its income for her livelihood (although I strongly doubted whether her unknown aunt, no matter how heartless, would have let poor Miss R. starve for lack of an income, since various of Miss R.’s answers to my questions indicated that her aunt was in possession of what must have amounted, even today, to a fairly handsome fortune) and she would, without her occupation, have lost even that shred of independence left to her, and as a result—mutatis mutandis—suffered the worse. Her aunt had found her the job, persuaded her to take it, and encouraged her to continue at it, and I did Aunt the discourtesy of supposing that she, too, might have found Miss R.’s daily, regular absence a source of some refreshment. In answer to searching questions Miss R. admitted to having her headache still, and was further persuaded to agree that she did, after all, suffer from headaches almost constantly, and backaches almost as often. That Miss R. was entirely inert I soon had reason to doubt, for, seeing me glance once at the clock, she rose immediately, although I had supposed her regarding, as usual, the corner of the desk, and, remarking that her aunt expected her home, made as to take her leave. I assured her that I noted the clock because of an appointment of my own which was still almost two hours away, but could not prevail upon her to stay, although I felt most strongly that we were making a kind of progress.

  “Doctor Wright,” she said unexpectedly, pausing on her way to the door but not turning to look at me, “I think this is wasting your time. I have nothing wrong with me.”

  I smiled reassuringly, although unnecessarily, at her back. “If you were able to diagnose your own case, Miss R.,” I said, “you would hardly have to come to a doctor. Moreover,” I went on, before she could point out that she had not come to a doctor at all, but had been sent, “one or two hypnotic sessions will surely show if there is nothing wrong.”

  “Goodbye,” Miss R. said, and took her departure.

  • • •

  I need not further detail for the impatient reader (you are patient, sir? Then you and I are left behind, inhabitants of a slower and more leisurely time, when we were not restless with an author for his painstaking efforts to entertain us, and demanded paragraphs of rich and rewarding meditation, and loved our books for the leather and the weight; we are forgotten, sir, you and I, and must take our quiet contemplation in secret, as some take opium and some count their gold)—I need not further trouble the reader, then, with a meticulous account of the progress which I made in persuading Miss R. to permit hypnosis; she was finally brought to agree to a brief experiment, although I am assured that she thought herself yielding to a kind of sinfulness rather than an honest attempt at therapeutic assistance, since she insisted upon the provision that she should not be required to answer any “embarrassing” questions, and was not to remain under hypnosis for more than a minute or so—too little time, I could not help noting cynically (although privately, sir; I am not a monster!) for any overt nefarious act on my part. To all of these stipulations I acceded willingly, knowing that even a brief experiment would certainly ease Miss R.’s fears, and might even prove of some assistance in quieting her nervous illness. As I had long suspected, she was, once she had brought herself to the point, a willing and cooperative subject, and in a very short space of time I had subdued her into a light hypnotic slumber.

  When she was breathing easily and quietly, her hands and face relaxed, and her feet resting comfortably upon a small footstool, I was agreeably surprised at her appearance of pleasant, intelligent comeliness and reflected at the time that very possibly Miss R.’s nervous constraints stretched even farther than headaches and sleeplessness, and threw over her whole personality an air of timidity and stupidity; I recall that I even wondered briefly if Miss R. might not be a gay and merry companion under her mask of illness. Marveling at the relaxation in her face, which for the first time seemed to me pretty, I asked her quietly, “What is your name.”

  “Elizabeth R.”—without hesitation.

  “Where do you live?”

  She named her street and city address.

  “Who am I?”

  “You are Doctor Wright.”

  “And are you afraid of me, Miss R.?”

  “Of course not.”—smiling slightly.

  It was most gratifying to see that, just as the anxious lines upon Miss R.’s face smoothed out under hypnosis, just as the tightness of her mouth relaxed and her voice lost its reluctance, so her funds of information were ready-tapped, as it were, and she answered my questions readily and without hesitation, although I had before heard from her only the briefest of replies and those spoken falteringly and with much hesitation; I foresaw, what I had believed all along, that with the priceless assistance of Miss R.’s own mind, freed of its pressure of constraint, we might easily and without terror soon have her as free from nervous ailments as the best of us.

  At this first attempt, I was most unwilling to rouse Miss R. from her happy sleep, but, mindful of my promise to keep her in trance for only a minute or two, I emphasized in her mind (in the form of what is called post-hypnotic suggestion, a most compelling influence) the conviction that she would sleep soundly and dreamlessly that night, an
d awaken the next morning refreshed (concluding that, once we had Miss R.’s insomnia under control, we might be strengthened to attack the headache and backaches, which I half believed to be little more than the result of fatigue) and awakened her. Immediately she became the Miss R. of my previous acquaintance, sullen, silent, looking anywhere but at me as she asked immediately, “What did I say?”

  Silently I passed her my notes across the desk, and she glanced at them hastily and then said in great astonishment, “Is this all?”

  “Every word,” I told her truthfully, although, needless to add, I had prudently kept back my own words which were to instill in her the suggestion of a night’s dreamless sleep.

  “Why did you ask me if I was afraid of you?”

  “Because naturally a doctor’s first duty is to establish trust between himself and his patient,” I said glibly, and, no doubt still marveling at my tremendous restraint when she was—as I have no doubt she thought of it vividly—in my power, she arose shortly afterward and took her leave.

 
Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]